In 1959, avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger released Hollywood Babylon, a book that promised to reveal the real stories behind the industrys craziest gossip, shedding light on figures like Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, and Marilyn Monroe. It was explosive, banned in the U.S. almost immediately after its release for all its salacious, potentially libelous detail. But that only brightened the books wild appeal, calcifying it as a classic in the gossip-lit genre, and prompting Anger to release a sequel, Hollywood Babylon II, in 1984. To some, Hollywood Babylon parades closer to myth and urban legend masquerading as what we might today call real talk, but that hasnt dampened its place in Hollywood history.
For Karina Longworth, the host of the excellent Panoply Media podcast You Must Remember This, which revolves around Hollywoods first century, there was no time like the present to dive into this mythic echo chamber.
“It purports to be pulling back the curtain to reveal the truth Hollywood doesnt want you to know, but in fact almost every single story includes some fictionalization,” Longworth said in a phone interview. “Even attempts to try to reveal the supposed truth behind the fake news are in itself a kind of fake news.”
In a lengthy two-part series for You Must Remember This, Longworth will tackle various stories from the book, attempting to uncover what she believes are the true stories beneath Angers text. Part One will unfold over the next 11 weeks; a mini-batch of episodes will then tide listeners over until Part Two airs at the end of 2018. In the first Babylon episode, Longworth explores Angers claims that director D.W. Griffith was a pedophile—as well as rumors that siblings Lillian and Dorothy Gish, who starred in a handful of Griffith films, were incestuous. Representatives for Anger have not yet responded to Vanity Fairs request for comment about the podcast series.
Researching vintage rumors such as these was, as listeners might imagine, a difficult task, even for someone as well-versed in history as Longworth. The podcast host and film historian has delivered definitive historical reporting on subjects like Charles Manson and the rise and fall of MGM.
“It is actually impossible, for most of these events, to be 100 [percent] certain what happened—partially because these things happened so long ago, partially because the Hollywood media at the time was putting out so much misinformation,” she said. She had to sort everything through the fun-house prism of the book, retaliatory stories from studios, and 100 years worth of people reiterating, embellishing, or watering down the original rumors.
Longworth first came across Hollywood Babylon as a student at art school. At first blush, she was thrilled by its determination to puncture Old Hollywood iconography. “I was coming at it from kind of a more avant-garde, subversive place. My favorite filmmakers were George Kuchar and Chris Marker,” she said with a laugh, referring to the experimental directors. “Also, obviously, I was watching Kenneth Angers films in art school, so Hollywood Babylon came to me at the right age.”
The book also introduced her to several 20th-century stars, a blessing in disguise. Now, with nearly two decades of Old Hollywood research under her belt, shes completely changed her mind about the book, deeming it an often misogynist and dangerous document.
“His general distaste for women is all throughout Hollywood Babylon, so I certainly dont think hed be happy to know a woman is deconstructing his work,” she said.
While researching Part One of the series, Longworth read around 20 books and often turned to the Web site Newspapers.com to uncover contemporaneous details. Still, some topics proved incredibly difficult to research. The death of silent-film star Olive Thomas, the subject of Episode 2, is one such example. In 1920, the actress died of accidental poisoning at just 25 years old, sparking one of the industrys first major scandals. In Hollywood Babylon, Anger claims that Thomass death was a suicide, spurred by a difficult romance with a junkie. Despite the actresss posthumous fame, Longworth had difficulty finding Thomass movies, nor was she able to find any reputable books on the subject—save one biography that was serviceable at best.
For an episode about silent-film comedian Mabel Normand, who Anger claimed was a cocaine addict, Longworth found answers in a what she considered to be an excellent book—but later discovered that Normands family had furiously discredited it. Longworth compromises in the episode by using the book as a resource, but also including the Normand familys point of view.
Researching this season gave Longworth a newfound appreciation for stars she thought she understood. One of her favorite episodes is about socialite Peggy Hopkins Joyce, an affluent Washington, D.C., housewife who skipped out on her marriage and ran to New York to become a showgirl. She continued to marry and divorce a slew of wealthy men, becoming more famous with each breakup. Somewhere in between, she dated both mega-producer Irving Thalberg and Charlie Chaplin, who based part of his film A Woman of Paris on Hopkins Joyces fabulous stories.
Before diving into her research, Longworth thought of Hopkins Joyce as the Kim Kardashian West of her time. “But then the more I read about her, the more I feel she was reminiscent of Kim Kardashian in the same way that Kims real art is the selfie. Peggy Hopkins Joyce was doing her own version of that in the teens and 20s.”
Today, Hollywood Babylon is still in print. Anger is alive as well: 91 years old, still doing the occasional interview, and, per his devotion to a pagan religion founded by Aleister Crowley called Thelema, still cursing those who cross him. Longworth, despite her feelings toward Hollywood Babylon, has a grudging respect for Angers hustler streak, his film career, and the fact that hes a gay man who survived an incredibly difficult era in the business.
“Im just hoping he doesnt find out about this podcast hes in,” Longworth adds, “because I expect him to put a black-magic curse on me.”
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